Six J-20 stealth fighters (from Left) can be seen in this satellite close to Sikkim border

by Anushka Gupta

The ongoing developments at the Shigatse airbase in Tibet, coupled with the deployment of seven J-20 aircraft, have drawn significant attention to the strategic dynamics between China and India. Shigatse airbase situated less than 150 kilometers from the Sikkim border, plays a pivotal role in China’s military posture in the region, particularly when Indian Air Force’s have stationed Rafale jets at the Hasimara base in Bengal, analysis TFIGlobal.

China’s strategic advantage, underscored by the high altitude of the Shigatse airport and its substantial fighter aircraft inventory, presents a formidable challenge for India. Furthermore, the possession of advanced air defence systems like the S-400 by both nations highlights Russia’s neutrality in potential India-China conflicts.

Both China and India have embarked on rapid infrastructure upgrades, which have only bolstered their respective domestic economies. Additionally, India’s efforts to maintain warm ties with Russia serve as a strategic counterbalance against potential alignments with China.

The recent deployment of seven J-20 stealth fighters at the Shigatse airbase in Tibet, located within 150 kilometers of the Sikkim border, has stirred considerable tension in the strategic dynamics between China and India. The proximity of Shigatse base to the Indian Air Force’s base in Hasimara, Bengal, adds a layer of complexity to the situation, especially given the presence of India’s Rafale fighter jets at Hasimara since July 2020. India presently operates two Rafale squadrons comprising a total of 36 jets, with a focus on defending the Himalayan frontier.

China has made significant strides in the production of J-20 stealth fighters, manufacturing nearly 250 of these advanced aircraft. The Shigatse airbase has witnessed substantial upgrades over the past three years, enhancing its strategic significance. The airport’s close proximity to India, combined with its high altitude of 12,408 feet, offers several operational advantages for PLAAF.

The deployment of J-20s at Shigatse underscores China’s capability to operate in harsh environments and signals a potential infrastructure build-up to support permanent operations. The Indian Air Force declined to comment on the matter, now. However, former fighter pilot Sameer Joshi views the J-20 presence as a direct threat to India’s air superiority, particularly diminishing the advantage of the Rafale jets.

Satellite imagery depicts J-20s landing and taxiing at Shigatse, highlighting the aircraft’s advanced capabilities. Developed in 2011, the J-20 represents China’s most advanced operational fighter, predominantly stationed in Eastern China.

Geopolitically, the deployment of J-20s near the Indian border holds significant implications, indicating a message from China to India regarding its combat aviation capabilities.

Equipped with advanced sensors and air-to-air missiles like the PL-15, the J-20 operates within an integrated network of drones, AWACS, and electronic warfare platforms, bolstering China’s defensive capabilities. Over the past five years, China has undertaken a significant build-up of air bases near India, including upgrades to airports like Nyingchi Mainling and construction of new facilities like Lhuntse and Ngari-Burang.

In response, India has fortified its own airbases, deployed surface-to-air missile defences like the S-400 system, and upgraded infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Both China and India have rapidly upgraded their infrastructure, yielding positive impacts on their respective economies. China’s industries and manufacturing units have scaled up production of infrastructure materials, generating profits not only domestically but also through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Meanwhile, India’s “Make In India” initiative has facilitated the production of indigenous weapons and defense systems, which are not only meeting domestic needs but also being exported. This dual strategy has contributed positively to India’s economy.

However, the irony lies in both China and India operating the same S-400 missile system, highlighting the complexities of their defence strategies in the region, wherein India will not be able to enjoy support from Russia, in a potential India-China conflict. As tensions between India and China escalate, the United States may seek to become involved in the region. India has historically navigated such situations adeptly, and New Delhi is likely to pursue diplomatic support from the US without letting the US interfere in a bilateral crisis of the two countries. The likelihood of a direct confrontation between India and China is relatively low, given China’s preference for prolonging conflicts.

(With Reporting by